Last season, the PGA Tour held five tournaments in Florida — four of which wrapped in the package known as the Florida Swing.
PGA National, Trump Doral, Innisbrook and Bay Hill all hosted events in the stretch (with Puerto Rico taking its typical oppo-field glory against the WGC-Cadillac Championship), setting up a Texas two-step in Austin for the WGC-Match Play and the Shell Houston Open as a final prelude to the Masters.
Then that PGA Tour done changed everything up when they signed a long-term deal to reinvent the Trump WGC into the WGC-Mexico Championship. It appeared publicly to be done in haste, moving away from, at the time, a toxic Republican candidate whose anti-immigrant bluster was a sore spot among many. Moving the event so abruptly forced the Tour to keep the events slotted in the same position as they had originally planned for the 2016-17 season. Now, instead of a trip to Doral (it’s not Miami; it never was Miami) from Palm Beach Gardens, it had to factor in a stretch that goes like this: Los Angeles area, Palm Beach Gardens, Mexico City, Tampa, Orlando.
Truly, flying from L.A. after Riviera to the Jupiter area, where a lot of players live, and to Mexico City is a first-world problem. Commercial aviation isn’t much fun, even in first class, but for the top players who can afford some private wheels, it’s no sweat. The thought, however, was that the Honda field suffered because it was sandwiched in between the Genesis Open, which is the new hotness these days, and the money-and-points grab at the WGC. Jack Nicklaus pretty much said as much.
However, for as much as I take most things Mr. Nicklaus says about golf (we differ dramatically in politics, but that’s life) as gospel, he’s wrong on this one. The initial thought was the field missed having any top-six players in the field this year. Rory McIlroy would have played were he not injured. Rickie Fowler, who hopped into the top six this time last year with his win in Abu Dhabi, played this year but wasn’t in the top six. Justin Thomas is eighth in the world and one of the two best players on the PGA Tour this year; he played. In truth, the international-strong field wasn’t all that much different than prior years.
In Mexico, 49 of the top 50 showed, and Jason Day would’ve made it a clean sweep if he hadn’t had some health issues. Tampa is pretty much its normal field, though Jordan Spieth isn’t in this year as he commits to a slightly tighter schedule.
Even the Arnold Palmer Invitational field isn’t all that different than past years. Of course, there’s pressure from golf at large for more players to commit to Bay Hill in the first year of the event since Mr. Palmer died last September. So far, 10 of the world top 25 have committed, and the Friday deadline is rapidly approaching. It’s unlikely players like Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott will change their mind last-minute and play. And, for so long as the API leans into the WGC-Match Play, the event not offering free money will be squeezed. It doesn’t deserve that.
Next year, this setup will remain, and then the PGA Tour will be in a position to change it for 2018-19. But the Tour shouldn’t just change it. They should destroy the Florida Swing.
Look, the PGA Tour schedule has winners and losers. Fall events aren’t typically winners, but certain players have their pet tournaments (their fifth, sixth and seventh majors). Opposite-field events get love from diehards but are otherwise not that big of a deal. Tournaments the week after a major typically get slaughtered because the best players are gassed from four truly exhausting rounds of major golf, with the Travelers Championship a noted exception these days. So, any shift in dates for any tournament may help one and, since this is a zero-sum game, will hurt another.
That said, the Florida events are all well-run, important and well-liked. They deserve good fields. However, no top player is going to compete in six consecutive tournaments, including Riviera and the Match Play, as a lead-in to the Masters when the plan is generally to get content with form and then take a little rest. So, the best way to help the Florida Swing is to split it in two sections.
The Tour has done this with a decent measure of success with its five Texas events. Austin and Houston lead into the Masters, though the WGC-Match Play should move dates. Then there’s Dallas and Ft. Worth in consecutive weeks. The Texas Open in San Antonio is on an island but still gets better fields than in the past. Staying in the same place for weeks on end was a great idea when players carpooled, literally, to tournaments. Now? With global TV coverage? Nah.
There are four Florida events on the schedule these days: the three in the current Flexico Swing and The Players, which, as you’ve read, the PGA Tour is considering moving back from May to March, where TPC Sawgrass can shine better and serve as a high-drama forerunner to the Masters. Players don’t skip The Players, so that move could crush other Florida fields if they all remain bunched together. No one wants the Memorial Tournament South (The Honda Classic) to get dinged; it spent too long in tournament purgatory. No one wants the API to keep getting snubbed; Mr. Palmer’s legacy compels the Tour to provide this event with a reverential place on the schedule, like Mr. Nicklaus’ Memorial in Ohio.
So, what’s the solution if we can move all the chess pieces?
Let’s look at Hawaii. The Tournament of Champions is swell, but it doesn’t need to start the calendar year anymore. It doesn’t the season, so the Champions can get together whenever. The Sony Open in Hawaii should be paired with the TOC for its viability. Move those two events elsewhere on the schedule and, instead, bring in the WGC in Mexico to start the year and then have Tampa right after it, then go to California to start the West Coast Swing. This way, the year begins with a great field (no one says no to free money and points), and Tampa can get a good rub as the first full-field event.
Keep Honda and Bay Hill together in March since those are pretty much home games for a good chunk of the field that lives in the Jupiter or Orlando area. They can surround The Players in some fashion.
Now, what to do with Hawaii? How about October? Start the season again with these tournaments. Players love going to Hawaii for either event, and they love the free money and amazing environment of Hawaii. It doesn’t matter when the Tour goes to Hawaii, they should get a nice field. Have the first two events of the season in Hawaii, then go to Malaysia, South Korea and China for the expanding Asian Swing, then come back to Napa and Vegas to resume the domestic schedule.
Long runs in a single domestic geographic area just don’t make sense in this day and age. Not only is travel obviously much better, but the schedule is also so rife with high-dollar, well-run events that all of them in a swing suffer by cannibalism. Let’s try ditching the Florida Swing and inviting a new way to view the schedule. After all, Florida looks almost as good as Hawaii and the money spends the same.